(2016) Paul McAuley, Gollancz, £8.99 / Can$15.99 / US$13.99, pbk, 413pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20399-0
Usually the first thing you notice about a book is its cover and this one affords its contents no favours; it looks like the sort of thing you tried to carve out of a Gestetner* blank forty years ago. If I were browsing in a bookshop this one would go straight back on the shelf, which is a shame as the book is better than that.
The novel is set only a generation or two hence. Things are getting worse: there is fighting over the world’s dwindling natural resources, there is more extreme weather, there are riots, revolutions, and netwars, and even the triggering of small atomic bombs. It is a period known as the Spasm and it might have got a lot worse had not the alien Jackaroo arrived; no-one knew where they came from or what they looked like, only that they said they were there to help. They appeared in the form of humanoid avatars with translucent golden skin, wearing black tracksuits and dark glasses. They brought with them a wormhole which leads to other wormholes (all artificial, created by previous races) and so enable humans to access to fifteen other worlds where mankind could start new lives; they also provided a constant shuttle service to help with these migrations. It was on one of these worlds that a young boy ‘summoned’ a couple of spaceships from a ‘Sargasso Sea’ of ships built by the Ghajar, one of the races of the (former) Elder Cultures whose artefacts they would discover on those other worlds. This gave mankind a ready-made space fleet with which to explore the stars and find new wormholes. Ada Morange, an entrepreneurial young lady, was instrumental in this process, becoming very rich and powerful.
The story is told through two individuals, Lisa Dawes and Tony Okoye. Lisa moved from Earth to First Foot soon after the adoption of the Ghajar ships. These, along with the instant passage through the wormholes, meant that many people could relocate to the many new planets, along with the goods and technologies they were used to, and some aspects of their lives are remarkably similar to our own: the police turn up in Range Rovers, explorers drive Land Cruisers or ride Harley-Davidsons, people drink coffee at Starbucks, and so on. Lisa is an expert on computer code and cracking the algorithms and the like left behind in the artefacts of the Elder Cultures. She met and married Willie and together they became ‘tomb raiders’, searching out in the Badlands and the so-called City of the Dead for usable bits of the ancient technologies, for the tesserae that hold the codes and the eidolons which emanate from them. Then they had their Bad Trip; they have no recollection of what happened but each has been infected by a ghost and their minds are not quite what they were before that snatch of ancient code lodged itself within them.
Having parted company, Lisa is now a rancher but Willie has continued with his tomb raiding. Then the geek police, lead by Adam Nevers and a Jackaroo avatar, turn up and inform her that Willie is believed to have died when an excavation in the desert went wrong (a fact which her ghost had already alerted her to). The ‘accident’ had resulted in a ‘breakout’ of old code which caused the prospectors to kill each other and now they need to search her ranch in case Willie left anything dangerous there. And so Lisa starts on a journey to find out what happened to Willie and exactly what their ghosts are, all the time pursued by Adam Nevers who has a hatred of such things (as well as a hatred of Ada Morange who he regards as responsible for the spreading use, or misuse, of the ancient codes).
About a hundred years later we meet Tony Okoye, a member of one of the honourable families on the planet Skadi. As part of the family business, he is running a bootleg operation to research stromatolites on a slime planet; they contain data in their genetic code and he hopes that this might lead to a cure of the sleepy sickness, one of the meme plagues caused by rogue code of the ancients. He, too, becomes infected by the same ghost as Lisa and Willie. However, it is all part of a long-planned ruse by Aunty Jael, a laminated brain owned by the family. Unknown to them, before the lamination process (a way of assuring ‘eternal life’) she had been Ada Morange - and Ada is still chasing after the ultimate knowledge from the Elder Cultures.
By means of a ‘timeship’ travelling at near the speed of light, Lisa arrives in Tony’s time; this is not coincidental - Ada’s plans have been long in the making and execution. However, Adam Nevers has travelled in a similar timeship and is heading for a final confrontation with his old nemesis.
Apart from the Jackaroo, the only other living aliens we come across are the !Cha, particularly the one known as Unlikely Worlds. Whereas the Jackaroo always claim that they are simply there to help and that every client race follows its own path, the !Cha are collectors of stories and Unlikely Worlds keeps popping up all over the place - wherever he thinks the really interesting bits of Ada’s story will be. It becomes apparent that the Elder Cultures includes hundreds of races of whom the Ghajar, the Ghostkeepers, and the Boxbuilders are but a small sample. They have all left traces but none of them have ever been found and their histories and fates are unknown. The questions are: will we ever find out their fates and what do the Jackaroo really want?
The author has invented many old technologies, or their remains, and used such names as eidolons, fetches, ghosts, tesserae, algorithms, and meme plagues, but he never completely defines them; one is presumably supposed to work these things out by their context. Whereas the excellent John Meany has always impressed me with his ability to invent such things whilst simultaneously explaining them (so even as you come across quickglass or a flowshaft you know what they are), Paul McCauley has not done so. I am still not sure exactly what he means by all his terms and what the differences are; in some cases an explanation emerges but not until much later than it could have done (almost as if a proof-reader had prompted him mid-writing with ‘I still don’t know what a floggle-toggle is’). I assume that he, himself, knows these things though I have a worry that he has not worked them out completely and is just throwing the terms round. I realise that explaining every new term as it first appears can make a story seem more like a textbook, but if the afore-mentioned Mr. Meany can do it then this author ought to be able to as well.
The chapters are mostly short and alternate between Lisa and Tony and this serves to hide the fact that both their stories start at a snail’s pace; the whole thing only starts to pick up about of a third of the way through the novel. All told, this could easily loose a hundred pages and the pace and story would be the better for it; it is another exercise in well-written padding. I do not wish to sound prudish, but I do wish the characters did not use the ‘F word’ so often; it might add ‘character’ to a character but it soon becomes boorish.
The end is reasonably satisfying though, given the time it had taken to get there, I found it a touch lacking. And it did not answer the questions; maybe that is because the book is about the journey and not the destination, or maybe the author had not worked out all the details and was content to let mysteries remain mysteries. All in all, it is well written but takes too long to get to a slightly vague ending.
* A Gestetner is an old-fashioned duplicator that used waxed paper that was cut by the shape of letters from a typewriter to let the ink flow through.
See Jonathan's take on Into Everywhere here.
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